Because of the diversity in culture, climate and terroir, Italian wine takes on many different faces. Whites from northern and coastal areas are generally light-bodied and unoaked with prominent acidity, while those from southern areas tend to be fuller and softer. Reds can range from light and lean to rich and lush.
But one thing ties all of these together: the wines of Italy are definitely designed for food-friendliness. Good Italian wine is meant to accompany a good (though not necessarily Italian) meal. The higher acidity levels and leaner body for which these wines are famous never overpowers the dish, and the wide spectrum of flavors means you can find something appropriate to any meal.
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Syrah is the principal grape of the northern Rhône, found in the sturdy wines of Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. The discovery of Greek amphorae excavated in the village of Tain, in the center of the vineyards of Hermitage, led to speculation that the vine may have been brought north to France from the city of Shiraz in the southeast of present day Iran. Whatever its origins, it is clear that this grape was already established in the Rhône valley by Roman times.
Like Cabernet, Syrah produces a tannic, deeply colored wine with robust flavors of black berry, smoke, pepper and tar. At one time, the wines of Hermitage were so cherished for their plump character that they were blended into the lean claret wines of Bordeaux, in a process the English called “to hermitagé.”
Today, Australia has taken over as the most visible producer of this grape, which they call Shiraz. Having made its way there in the 1830s, Shiraz is now the country’s most widely planted red grape. With a warmer climate and penchant for technology, the Aussies have produced a style that is almost the complete opposite of the Rhône wines. Fruit characteristics are foremost, emphasizing the bold, ripe blackberry flavors, chocolate and tar. Australian Shiraz provides one of the weightiest mouthfuls of any red wine! The most acclaimed Australian wine region, Barossa Valley, is the birthplace of the legendary Penfolds Grange. Rich and extraordinary, this is the most collectible Australian wine and one of the most famous wines anywhere made from Syrah.
Outside of France and Australia, California and Washington have made headway producing worthy Syrah in the upper price categories, but their limited popularity has slowed any growth spurts. Chile has been turning heads as some of its top producers have released single varietal Syrah wines. South Africa, too, shows promise with its enthusiastic forays into the promotion of this ancient, noble grape.